This week’s Gospel (Mark 1:21-28) describes Jesus commanding “an unholy spirit” to come out of a man. The people who observe this act wonder at the authority Jesus possesses, exclaiming that even the unholy spirits obey his word. Many people in the technological and scientific world of today might dismiss this reading, thinking it demonstrates the superstitious beliefs of people from long ago. We never have to deal with “unholy spirits,” do we?
On an afternoon that was like many others, my friend Anna glanced up from her chemistry notes and told me she wanted to ask me something. Her mother, Kathy, had not been herself lately. Kathy got angry very easily, yelling at Anna and her siblings for seemingly inconsequential actions. Kathy seemed sad, distanced, and tired almost all the time, and she had stopped playing tennis and knitting, two of her favorite hobbies. Anna wanted to do something to help her mother, but also to help herself. Living with Kathy was making Anna miserable. Anna scheduled a meeting with someone at her church who did spiritual counseling, hoping to get some advice on what she could do to help her mom change. She asked me if I would go with her to that meeting for support.
At the meeting, Anna explained the situation to the counselor. She even offered to try to get her mother to go to counseling. What the counselor told Anna that day is similar to what Alateen members learn (see this week’s Spirit): Anna could not change her mother, no matter how much she wanted to. Anna was discouraged at this news; she desperately wanted to do something to help her mother. I have never forgotten what the counselor said next: “You cannot change your mother, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing you can do. You can pray for her.”
That afternoon, Anna and I prayed for Kathy together. Anna asked me if I would keep praying for Kathy, and I did, every night before I went to bed. Although I never asked, I am sure that Anna prayed for Kathy all the time, too. I am sure of this because a few years later when I visited Anna’s house over a break from college, the mood was entirely different than it had been when Anna and I were in high school. Kathy seemed happier, more like her old self. When I asked Anna if she, too, noticed a change her mom, she smiled. She showed me a scarf and hat set her mom had knitted for her and confided in me that Kathy had been seeing a counselor for a few years and had been honest with Anna about how hard she was working to make changes in herself. “I think our prayers worked,” Anna concluded.
Just because we live in a technological and scientific age, I still believe people have to deal with “unholy spirits.” When we think broadly, so many things could be included in this category: alcoholism and other forms of addiction; depression and other forms of mental illness; rampant consumerism and other consequences of living in a mass media culture… And while it is true that we cannot change or control other people, there is one curative option open to all of us, as Anna discovered: we can pray. And while the healing may not be as quick as that experienced by the man with the unholy spirit in Mark’s Gospel (or may not even happen in our lifetime), we can trust that Jesus continues to speak with authority, working in people’s hearts to help them expel that which keeps them from living fully into their identity as children of God and followers of Christ.
What “unholy spirits” do you think affect people in our society? For whom can you pray?